Walking Free While Black: Unlocking Streets, Communities

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Attorney General Eric Holder promises to overhaul America's prison system.

by Atreish Ramlakhan

Some of our most recent national news stories paint a definitive picture: institutional racism, which has a long and painful history for many Americans, is still very much a part of our lives.

In particular, the criminal justice system has been under close scrutiny; the Trayvon Martin shooting and subsequent verdict, the stop-and-frisk ruling in New York City, and recent comments by Attorney General Eric Holder about mass incarceration have had all shared prominent media coverage this summer, one by one shedding further light on the rampant racial disparities within the criminal justice system—a system that has grown increasingly unacceptable for many Americans.

Denied ‘Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect’

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If you lived or spent time in New York City in the last year, you couldn’t help but notice the buttons and stickers on backpacks and jackets calling for an end to the stop-and-frisk policy. This much maligned NYPD tactic has now been deemed unconstitutional by a federal district judge for the City’s “blind eye toward the racially insensitive manner in which the policy has been used.” Sunita Patel, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), said in an interview on Democracy Now! that the experts (statisticians) who testified in the case agreed that the Bloomberg administration had been “blurring the math.” The City claims that stop and frisk has helped save lives and reduce crime in predominantly black and Latino, low-income, high-crime areas. The CCR counters that Bloomberg inherited a nationwide trend of falling crime rates. With only a six percent arrest rate and over 4.5 million stops by the NYPD in the last decade, stop and frisk was deployed as a fear tactic and was not a sound crime-fighting policy.

Lock-Up Culture

Alongside these thuggish and racist policing tactics remains the fact that despite declining violent crime rates across the nation, America has a prison problem. Mass incarceration has been a reality since the 1970s and grew considerably through the 1980s through today. The War on Drugs and other “tough on crime” policies has made the United States home to 40 percent of the world’s prison population. Black men are disproportionately represented in jail and receive 20 percent longer prison sentences than white men for similar crimes. Psychologists, sociologists, and other community advocates have for decades agreed that mass incarceration destroys communities and perpetuates cycles of poverty, violence, crime, and broken families. Furthermore, life after release is often one of compromised human dignity, when the formerly incarcerated are so often seen as nothing more than “felons” or “ex-cons.” That’s why it’s comforting to hear that Attorney General Eric Holder aims to implement policies overhauling mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenses. Tapping into the public mood, at a recent press conference in San Francisco he expressed moral appall with the discriminatory practice. “This isn’t just unacceptable. It’s shameful,” he said.

'Cautious Optimism'

In the meantime, public protests have figured prominently in national conversations about these coinciding news stories. Massive protests before and after the Zimmerman trial were held throughout multiple cities and covered on major news networks, newspapers, and web magazines. Everyone from Beyoncé to the POTUS gave a media statement expressing deep emotion over the case. In a country rife with gun violence, why did one more shooting cause such a huge reaction? It illustrates what people of color, primarily African-Americans, have been pointing to for years: unjust and unequal treatment from the law.

Though it seems there may be broadening public outrage to the injustices disadvantaged populations face, we should retain, in the words of civil-rights attorney Michelle Alexander, “cautious optimism.” The use of racial profiling and racial disparities in the justice system will not disappear overnight. Rather, we must test the waters by advocating for promising alternative policies, and that takes time. If we can believe Holder’s promise to begin to overhaul part of this broken system, we can hope that the official condemnation of the stop-and-frisk policy is a preview of good things to come.